Skip to main content

What's in a name?

A city may seem an inexplicable jumble of buildings and streets but a closer look at something as familiar as their own surname gives pupils a way into local history and geography, says Gale Blackburn.

From my classroom window my eye travels across Edwardian housing, derelict railway sidings, monstrous tower blocks, as far as the sleek gleaming lines of Canary Wharf Tower. My geographical mind gathers up the significance of all these jumbled buildings. But how do you get a pupil to strip away a landscape, layer on layer of time, to understand how it all once was?

To many pupils at school in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, aspects of history and geography must seem irrelevant. What does Henry Tudor mean to a child whose ancestors lived in Bangladesh? Why study agriculture if you have hardly ever seen soil? Pupils who have problems framing a sentence on paper cannot see the point of learning many of the skills associated with both these subjects. This is why local knowledge can be the starting point in understanding them.

The Isle of Dogs (so-called when this land was used by Royalty who hunted using hounds) on the neck of the Thames meander, with its skyscraper skyline, must now be unrecognisable to anybody who ever worked in the docks there, in all but the remaining road names. Canary Wharf and East and West India Docks recall the specific trading links that Britain once had. Marsh Wall and Millharbour Lane recall the physical docks themselves, Mastmaker Road and Lighterman's Road refer to the once-thriving boat-building industry. A sketch map of these roads can be built up on the board and old maps or photographs used to reinforce the message. It would be a good idea to combine this with local field trips when studying for evidence of past industry or land use.

The population has also changed, with vast numbers of dockworkers emigrating to new towns in the South-east, and, since the 1960s, immigrants from the West Indies, Asia and the Far East. Despite this it is possible to read local history in the surnames of pupils in my East London school, such as Hamersley (flat land on a river bend) or Webb (weaver of fishing nets). Changes of population and settlement in the past few decades have happened too quickly for language to keep pace. However, it would be worth finding out the meanings of several Muslim, Hindi, Turkish and Kosovan surnames, not to mention Irish, if you are living near any city centre in Britain, so that you can include everyone in whole-class discussions.

Give pupils lists of the meanings of syllables, such as "burn" (stream or river) "ton" (settlement or town) "dic" (ditch or dyke) and ask them to work out the meanings of each other's surnames. Put up a list of class surnames and write the meanings next to them. Pupils could also draw a flow diagram showing where the families of the class come from, using an outline map of the world.

Local surnames and street names carry weight with pupils. Once the meanings have been explained they are unlikely to forget them. "Mamersley" refers to a person who lived on the alluvial soil of a river bend; "Marling" on clay soil. Both names reflect the physical environment of inner London at one time. "Fish", for a person associated with fishing, "Weaver", associated with ropes and nets; "Farina", for a flour merchant recalls the industries and markets associated with the river.

Several street names of the old City of London recall industry or social activity. Cannon Street housed the candlemakers; so what about Petticoat Lane and Brick Lane? The Old English "wic" refers to a trading place or port, for example, Hackney Wick. Chiswick (trading cheese) Woolwich (wool) refer to the specific goods that these places were known for.

Another useful exercise is to give pupils an outline map of the area where they live, showing rivers and upland areas. They could mark on maps, (or have ready-marked maps) picking out certain place names, such as Hackney, Rotherhithe, Stepney Green, Stratford, Holborn, Muswell Hill. They are then provided with a sheet of tracing paper with which they overlay the map and a list of place-name meanings. They are asked to find all the names ending, for example, in "ey" and to draw an appropriate symbol (in this case, the Ordnance Survey symbol for marsh).

When they have finished this ask them to study their tracing paper, which should display much of the physical landscape of the past and has been so influential in deciding place names. They could compare this with a copy of an old OS map, shown on an overhead projector. So for example, place names ending in "ey" are those in lowland areas, often close to rivers (Stepney, Hackney, Bermondsey); those containing "well" are often found in upland areas, near the sources of rivers (Muswell Hill, Willesden, Camberwell); "hamm" are places close to a river bend (East and West Ham, Hammersmith, Hampton, Fulham).

A suggestion for history lessons is to have an outline map of England, with several significant place names. At each corner of the map is a cartoon of one of the following: Vikings, Romans, Normans, and Saxons. Each of these invaders has contributed to the language of Britain; the pupils' task is to draw lines from them to each settlement shown whose name they have influenced (a list of language meanings should be shown for each one.) The result should show the extent of Britain which each of these invaders settled.

A word of warning: avoid the personal. Tread carefully if you have a naughty "Goodchild" or a "Smelley" in your class.

Gale Blackburn teaches at Bow School, Tower Hamlets RESOURCES

'A Dictionary of Surnames' gives meanings and origins of common surnames from around the English-speaking world 'A Dictionary of English Surnames' includes an appendix on tracing the home of a family name 'A Dictionary of London Place names' includes streets and areas, linguistic and historical origins and maps Oxford University Press


Ac, oke Oak tree

Aecer Plot of cultivated land

Ald, eald, olde, elde Old

Baer, denn Woodland pasture

Baernet Land cleared by burning

Bec, broc, burn Stream

Borough Suburb outside city wall

Brycg Bridge

Cnott, cloppe, dun, doun Lump, hill

Cumb, coombe Valley bottom

Dic Ditch

Eg, ey Island or land partly surrounded by water, dry ground in marsh

Feld Open land

Ford Ford, river crossing

Forest Wooded area set aside for hunting

Funta, wella Spring

Geat Gate

Grene Grassy spot, village green

Haga, hegge Hedged enclosure

Hamm Land in a river bend, homestead, village, manor

Helde, heald Slope

Leah, ley Woodland clearing or pasture

Meos, mersc, quaggy Marsh

Rysc, rushe, rishe Rushes or reed bed

Stocc, stubb, stumbel Tree stump

Tun, toun Farmstead, estate, manor, village

Wic Trading or industrial settlement, port or harbour

Wode Wood

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you